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Happy Birthday free from copyright
World's most recognized song finally released after legal battle
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Once a year, “Happy Birthday to You” is your song.

It is not only sung about you, but specifically to you. I like it because when I hear it, I know I have survived another year.

According to the 1998 Guinness Book of World Records, it is the most recognized song in the English language. “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” is next.

Many times it is sung as the candles are lit on a birthday cake. When the singing ends, you blow out the candles and make a wish. Some folks tag the song with the stinger “and many more.”

It’s your moment and you get to shine or bask in the glow of the flickering candles. You get to make some secretive wish and then, it’s all over.

A few years ago, a company acquired what they thought were the rights to “Happy Birthday to You.” When they bought them, the value was estimated at $5 million.

This week, a federal judge ruled it wasn’t. His ruling essentially says “Happy Birthday” is public domain. It belongs to all of us.

Song rights are a big deal.

A friend of mine, the Rev. Robert L. “Jackey” Beavers, was a co-writer of the Supremes’ hit, “Someday, We’ll Be Together.” He always loved when there was a Motown special on TV. That meant he would get a nice check for the performance rights. He died a few years ago and I guess his heirs now get that payment.

When he was just 17, Mylon LeFevre wrote a gospel song called “Without Him.” One night, Elvis Presley was at a concert by LeFevre’s family and heard Mylon’s song. Elvis would record it on his chart-topping gospel album, “How Great Thou Art.”  Within a year, about 90 other artists recorded it, too. One day, a check for $90,000 showed up in 18-year-old Mylon’s mailbox. He went out and bought a new Corvette.

I’m sure that’s his favorite birthday song.

But “Happy Birthday” was the accidental song. Two sisters from Kentucky named Patty and Mildred Hill wrote a children’s song in 1893 called “Good Morning to All.”

Somebody eventually substituted the words “Happy Birthday to You” and it became one of the most popular songs ever. It first appeared in print in 1912.

If you watch movies or TV shows, you’ll very seldom hear the singing of the entire song. That’s because the folks who thought they owned the rights would send you a bill.

It is also the reason some restaurant chains wouldn’t allow their workers to sing “Happy Birthday” to celebrating customers. Some of them resorted to a horrible chant of  “Fried chicken, country hog, it’s your birthday, Hot Dog!”

I wish I owned the rights to that. I would take it out back, burn it and never let it be uttered again.

The public playing of music is a big deal. That’s why restaurants, department stores and other business places pay someone a fee to deliver music to their store. If you hear a snappy arrangement of “Tea for Two,” the folks who bought the rights from Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar will expect a little dough.

The previous sentence was a bad attempt at musical humor. I digress.

However, after a long court battle, “Happy Birthday” is all yours.  Sing it to your heart’s content.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.

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